On April 26, 1946, Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to
Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force, and Johnnie
Mitchell Nelson, a teacher. Brought up first on one military base and
then another, Nelson started writing while still in elementary school.
She earned her BA from the University of California, Davis, and
holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MA,
1970) and the University of Minnesota (PhD, 1979).
Her books include Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012); The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2005); The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997),
which was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the
1997 National Book Award, and the PEN
Winship Award; Magnificat (Louisiana State University Press, 1994); The Homeplace
(Louisiana State University Press, 1990), which won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist
for the 1991 National Book Award; Mama's Promises
(Louisiana State University Press, 1985); and For the Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1978).
She has also published
collections of verse for children, including Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (Dial Books, 2009); The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (Front Street, 2008); The Cat Walked through the
Casserole and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland
(Carolrhoda Books, 1984) and Halfdan Rasmussen's Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems
for Children (Black Willow Press, 1982), which she translated from Danish with
Her honors include the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2001–2006, she served as the Poet Laureate of Connecticut.
In 2013, Nelson was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Fellow Chancellor Arthur Sze praised her selection, saying: "Marilyn Nelson's poetry is remarkable for its sheer range of voice and style, for its historical roots, and for its lyrical narratives that, replete with luminous details, unfold with an emotional force that, ultimately, becomes praise. ...She is a vital ambassador of poetry."
Since 1978 she has taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs,
where she is a professor emerita of English.